Seeking a fresh strategy


REIMAGINING THE FUTURE: With the downturn comes a chance to rethink how we have been doing things, and for creative thinking to come to the fore. More artists and writers talk to SEÁN LOVE

A RECURRING theme in this series is viewing the economic convulsion as an opportunity to get things right, and focusing on the common good and the strengths we have. All contributions have highlighted the wrong directions taken in social policy. For example, in education: have any of our decision-makers had the wisdom to ask outstanding educators, such as Áine Hyland, Sally Sheils and Niall McMonagle, to advise on education policy, to emphasise that education is not simply about producing workers for the economy.

The Government established An Bord Snip. Fair enough, it has a job to do. But perhaps the most depressing thing is that it didn’t have the imagination to create a positive think-tank, a Bord Vision or a Bord Creative.

People need hope, trust and confidence. It is there in spades throughout the country at local and community level, in sports clubs, in schools, in creative arts, in community groups. No doubt it is there in business too. There are so many brilliant people out here. But there is no connection to the central decision-makers.

Mark O’Halloran, Screenwriter and actor

“There was a precipitous decline, that people didn’t know was going to stop, and didn’t know what to expect, and it was frightening. The dark months of January and February were frightening for everybody, because you just thought: ‘Is all of our infrastructure going to fall apart? Are our schools going to close?’ I don’t think that’s going to happen now. I think we’re going to go back 12 to 15 years.

“At the height of the boom, lots of people criticised writers and artists for not representing it. And I often thought about it, and the thing I wrote was this television series called Prosperity, in which everyone is having a miserable time. That, for me, was the reality of what I was seeing, but we were told by the media that everything is now fixed, and the only people who are poor now are stupid and lazy. And that was something that I wanted to represent. I was accused the other day of causing the recession by writing Prosperity.

“During the boom, I just felt like slapping everybody. But now that the boom has gone boom, it changes what I want to write about. I want to write in a much more gentle way. I want to write gentle comedies. I want to write about romance. I think the tranche of work that will come through now from writers will be far lighter.

“Now I think we have a chance to save ourselves properly. We have such a lot of great attributes. We are genuinely friendly people. We are genuinely good storytellers. I think we genuinely have a sunny disposition. Of course we’re also begrudgers. But I think it’s time to celebrate all those good things.

“I think now we can be optimistic that people are not going to be solely about monetary gain, because it was leaving people empty. It’s interesting that people turn to art when there’s nothing else in their lives. And that’s exciting, because artists can slip in and start defining what this new Ireland is going to be.

“Something went amiss with our education system – I think maybe in the 1970s. It compartmentalised, and the idea of a rounded education, of knowing your Shakespeare and your economics at the same time, came to be seen as a failure.

“Education is the fundamental we must invest in. The duty of the State is to maximise the potential of every individual who lives here. I went to school in the 1980s. There was no music room, no drama, no art. We never went to a play. And I didn’t write anything until I was 30, because I had to educate myself in my twenties and read all the books I should have been reading while I was at school. I left school thinking that you either understood what literature was about or you didn’t. I was in my twenties before I would read a book and go: ‘God, I have no idea what that was about, but I really enjoyed it.’

“If we were starting anew, I think the greatest thing we could do in education would be to put a piano room in every school. Or at least try to ensure that every child has access to a musical instrument and instruction in how to play it. I never learned to play music. I think it’d be a lovely thing.

“I hope that artists won’t start being afraid. We’ve got to resist the climate of fear. A lot of theatre and dance groups are worrying that they need to scale back. I say: ‘Do the big show, blow the whole bloody lot. Risk your own company’s failure if that’s what it means.’

“It would be very good for Ireland if everyone were to understand the importance of personal responsibility, which is something we give up too easily. It is always somebody else’s fault. Of course I feel sorry for people who’ve been badly stung by the recession, and it includes many of my friends. But I think we need to face up to the fact that we also allowed ourselves to be conned. I think, particularly throughout the boom years, our society was drunk.”

Lynne Parker, Theatre director

“This nation is still relatively young, and it seems we’ve made a lot of mistakes in how we put it together. Some of the most important building blocks of the State are being dismantled – but, in a way, that’s not a bad thing.

“We need to rethink how we look at the hierarchy of our society. We’re in a good position to start adopting a kind of healthy iconoclasm.

“I think theatre has a very interesting role to play. Theatre itself is a useful model. It acts as a type of microcosm of society, because what it produces is put together by a confluence of individuals around a common idea. In a play, the idea of consequences is crucial. Our fundamental responsibility, as artists, is to tell stories truthfully.

“All great plays look at the picture of a society, and they trace the stories not just of one individual but of the whole dramatis personae so that the impact of action is very clearly seen. It all joins up – the whole thing has to be viewed holistically, as part of a mechanism. If one part is not functioning properly or taking too much energy, then the whole lot suffers and the picture distorts.

“We recently produced Schiller’s Don Carlos, an 18th-century German play set in 16th-century Spain. The relevance to our own times is that the story perfectly illustrates the folly of placing too much power in the hands of one fallible individual. This was not lost on the audience.

“Theatre is essentially subversive, and has to be. If it isn’t, then it’s not doing its job. And even popular, so-called light entertainment has that quality of mischief. It has the ability to needle the establishment – even if it’s a part of it. Our national institutions can retain the elements of criticism, of subversive satire. We probably have not been doing that enough.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that all plays are comedies in one way or another, and that humour helps us to retain a sense of perspective. This is what great writing, great theatre, can add to the way in which we see ourselves. I think that the greatest plays contain elements of both tragedy and satire. The first helps us form an emotional response, to empathise with the plight of an individual or individuals; the second helps us to retain a sense of perspective, to analyse, to treat the thing rationally, intellectually – and that’s a positive energy. It is not just about complaining about the ills of the world. It’s about a creative response that has humour as its base.

“We need to reposition art at the centre of our national psyche. It is absurd and ironic that this nation is best known for its creative and intellectual skills. We don’t make cars. We are actually famous for our art.

“A greater honesty would help. One of the problems was that this place has been run by people who model themselves on Napoleon. If we could start taking ourselves less seriously, on one level, and more seriously on another, if we’d stop looking for grandiosity to lead us, and start working on the ground, we might move back to a sense of community. This requires all of us as artists to be excellent at what we do. In that respect, what we need is a meritocracy.

“I think as the nation developed we looked too much at American and British models. We should have looked – and should look now – at countries with similar populations to ours, and proper social democracies. A measure of a country’s maturity is how it cares for its citizens. We need a decent healthcare system, with art as a central element. It shouldn’t ever be a case of art versus healthcare; they are the same thing.

“The rupture of the financial and religious institutions didn’t come a minute too soon. Now we have a chance to re-examine ourselves, and I think this is a real opportunity. Why the hell were we listening to all those idiots for so long?”

Zlata Filipovic, Writer

“I came here as a 14-year-old from Sarajevo in 1995, where I had witnessed a complete breakdown of a political system, of humanity, everything. And in that sense, yes, perspective is needed when we speak of a crisis.

“All the change here over the past 14 years has been remarkable. I went to college in the UK, and when I’d come back home to Dublin for holidays I was always amazed at how places I knew when I was 15, 16, 17 would look totally different each time I came back. Something that really struck me was that people stopped saying hello to each other in the street.

“In my first week in Dublin with my parents, we were out walking and got totally lost, had no idea how to find our way home, and we knocked on a door for help. The woman who answered put us all in her car and drove us immediately to our home.

“As a foreigner, the more the prosperity kicked in, the more invisible I felt I became. In 1995 when I first arrived, I felt like a curiosity, exotic, warmly welcomed, and this continued through 1996, 1997. But by 2000 things that hadn’t happened to me in the beginning were starting to happen, like being called a ‘f***ing foreigner’.

“And now, it seems to me we are back at the softer Ireland that I first encountered. Friendlier, where people talk again, without the hysterical consumerism, which was just ridiculous. Now the place feels deflated, but in a good way. There is a return to something more real, more authentic. I much prefer it now.

“I don’t want to underestimate the personal difficulties for people with high mortgages who may be losing their jobs, and there has to be a separation of the personal and the public. So, in the public context, I think the hysteria driven by the media is too strong. And there is no use to it. There is nothing positive or constructive from hysteria.

“It is very important that Ireland doesn’t allow the ‘other’ to be created, because then you really are in trouble. That is what happened us in the Balkans. Ireland must watch its relationship to immigration.

“I remember before the war in Bosnia, people were on the radio and TV ranting and screaming, lots of hysteria, nationalism let loose. This could be lethal if coupled with rapidly deteriorating employment and living standards. But these are worst-case scenarios. We need to be aware of the dangers, but I don’t think Ireland is headed there, certainly not yet.

“In spite of the difficulties, it is still a country with democracy, with elections, with social services – even if they don’t function as we would wish. And it’s allowing for opportunities. We still have enough manoeuvrability to renew, to reinvent. Things haven’t collapsed totally. We have a chance now to go back and do things more carefully, more thoughtfully.

“I think there is a sense of great disappointment, mistrust in leadership, here now. I think the channels for bringing in new talent don’t seem to have been developed. And maybe the society got a little bit lazy, in the sense of not contributing to its own future welfare, to the need for change? So channels need to be established for something new to grow from grassroots up.

“Where is the artistic response? Perhaps out of the affluence you get laziness, lack of questioning. But I am sure it will come, it will just take that bit longer. There will be plays and books and music written.

“It may surprise but, outside, everybody still loves Ireland. Everybody who knows of it wants to come here and visit. It is a beautiful and special place, in spite of the many assaults on its magic and beauty. I really love being here. I love the genuine human to human connection. And I love that music is so strong here. There is a real and still very accessible soul here.

“I feel I am now Irish and Bosnian, some sort of amalgam. In my earlier 20s I felt neither here nor there. Now I am comfortable somewhere in between. I am optimistic for Ireland. I have an innate belief in its authenticity and realness. Though it got covered briefly with gold dust, the gold dust has been blown away and those good qualities are still there.”